Looking over the books in this month's DIESEL newsletter makes me think about the things that we have forgotten. Maybe it is because it is the end of January, that looking-forward/looking-back month. The forgotten things touched on in this newsletter are things like direct relationships to wild animals and through them the immediate mysteries of the lived world; how things work, how they function, what makes them run; the enmeshing of visual design and legibility not only on the page, which brings us the wider world, but in transit maps and signs aiding us in navigating the physical earth; and the Imagination itself, which we forget at our peril, and which brings us not only solace and joy in our entertainments but companionship, hope, and the creativity to engage ourselves more intimately and responsibly with our whole lived planet.
Here's to remembering, which is a re-membering, a reunion with what surrounds us.
John & All DIESELfolk
Empathy for domesticated animals is natural to us, but empathy toward many other creatures can take effort. Mammals usually aren't challenging, nor birds. Insects and reptiles are harder, but familiarity can make it easier. How about invertebrates of all kinds, though? And that most mysterious of invertebrates -- the cephalopods, including the octopus?
The Soul of an Octopus takes us into the stunningly alien world of octopus consciousness. From the mesmerizing chameleonic shapeshifting of their skin color, textures and shape changes, to their eight-armed dexterous coordination, to their playful intelligence, Montgomery introduces us to a life form that expands our imagination and strains our empathy into a bigger orbit. As she writes, quoting one of the biologists she works with: "'Just about every animal,' Scott says, '-- not just mammals and birds-- can learn, recognize individuals, and respond to empathy.'" And on working with these animals: "You learn to project empathy."
It is a quantum leap in our sense of ourselves and of the place of consciousness in our planet's fellow beings. As such, it is a bold step toward a greater understanding of the risks and values in the ecological relationships we maintain with the whole wide world. -- John E.
A Manual For Cleaning Women has been one of the most sought after books among our Oakland staff, and for good reason. Prior to this collection, Berlin had only published in a handful of journals and small presses during her lifetime. Her stories visit laundromats, churches, unsanitary dentist offices, the 18 bus line, the 51 bus line, Berkeley mansions, Oakland children's hospital, a drug rehab center, and the list goes on. Berlin's characters are gross and saint-like. There is love and there is phantom pain. Teeth are yanked from the mouth and housemaids compare loot -- the sorts of things you can get away with stealing. I want to live in every single story. Lucia Berlin is hands down one of the best American authors, and A Manual for Cleaning Women effortlessly paints an honest American landscape in all its shining sickness. This is the book I have been seeking for a long time. -- Katherine D.
Parker's debut collection of interwoven short stories is stunning. At first glance the stories merely examine the inner lives of pedestrian middle-class families, then in slip dark and subversive twists. Parker wryly observes each character, fiercely independent yet reliant on and at the mercy of the natural web of human life that supports and sustains us. Parker's skillful and beautiful use of language, coupled with her capacity to shock makes this book a page-turner. -- Mia W.
With The Three-Body Problem English-speaking readers get their first exposure to a writer who has already become a phenomenon in China. In what is being hailed as a science-fiction masterpiece, Liu's novel begins against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution. It's difficult to write about this book without giving away too much of Liu's intricate plot line. He writes in the prologue: "I realized that I had a special talent: scales and existences that far exceed the bounds of human sensory perception -- both macro and micro -- and that seemed to be only abstract numbers to others, could take on concrete forms in my mind." This is how The Three-Body Problem fluctuates in its narrative form: from the insecurities and problems of individual characters to an invading alien race four light years away. This book is steeped in speculative physics, mathematics, and the all-important question for science fiction readers: how would we react to first contact? -- Terry S.
Is this a guide for armchair travelers? Is this a book illustrating the elegant presentation of information? Is it about a specific type of urban cartography? Yes it is. This newly expanded and updated edition of the beloved original from 2007 can be appreciated from many different directions. It is divided into zones. Zone 1 is an appreciation of transit and transit maps. Zones 2 through 4 detail transit maps from the largest to the smallest systems. Zone 5 covers all the other loose ends. If you pick it up, prepare to busy yourself for many hours. My game was testing the claim that it includes "Every Urban Train Map on Earth." Dar es Salaam? Fukui? Sacramento? Zagreb? All are there. After failing the game, I just started enjoying this amazing presentation of transit systems in all the places I've been or now want to go. --- Alan D.
Sometimes, modern life and all its accoutrements feel overwhelmingly confusing. There is always some new technology which is so advanced that it may as well be magic. Not to mention the everyday wonders that we may never have considered understanding. Thing Explainer is the brain-child of Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist who is well-known for his webcomic xkcd and his previous bestseller What If? This book attempts to take the mystery out of complex mechanisms by explaining them using only the one thousand most common words and some marvelous blueprints and diagrams. Or as the subtitle would put it "complicated stuff in simple words." The language restriction leads to some amusing phrasing, especially in the titles: "Bags of Stuff Inside You" is your digestive system, and "Big Tiny Thing Hitter" is a Large Hadron Collider. The final section where the author explains his choices of words is fascinating in its own right. Occasionally, the simplicity requires the reader to take an intellectual step backward, but it is satisfying when you figure out what a "Shape Checker" is. Thing Explainer is an entertaining book, which is fun to share and has the bonus of being enlightening. -- Clare D.
This sweet children's tale is the perfect one for that very bright and imaginative child who might still have a little bit of wonder inside even while trying to gain a foothold in the "real" world.
Sensitive and joyful, it seems to have been written and illustrated for and by kids, yet may just bring a tear or two to the reading adult -- which is fine because it deals with emotions that can sometimes be difficult to bring up. This is a wonderful bridge for an engaging post-read discussion. -- Mo F.